It’s hard to fathom a time when refrigeration didn’t exist considering the extent of today’s cold chains. It’s an approximately $280 billion USD industry today! Look around your house or any local grocery, drug or convenience store and you’ll see just how incredibly important the cold chain has become to our daily lives. From pharmaceuticals and skincare to fresh food and fresh flowers, it’s nearly impossible to get through the day without using some product of the cold chain. That’s why it’s critical that you and I – as innovators, problem solvers and business decision-makers – do everything in our power to stop the spoilage and loss of cold chain goods in transit and storage.
Shrink resulting from mismanaged environmental conditions or improper goods handling hurts more than your bottom line. It causes physical and mental distress for customers. Seven-in-10 patients surveyed in Zebra’s latest Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Vision Study said they are afraid they’re going to receive medications that were improperly handled or stored during transit and could have damage or diminished efficacy. Around a third have concerns about medication availability and disruption to their regimens, mainly because they’ve suffered from out-of-stocks as of late. And only 20% of consumers who participated in Zebra’s Food Safety Supply Chain Vision Study said they place complete trust in industry leaders to ensure food and beverage safety. Of course, your stakeholders are not going to be thrilled either if they hear your business is experiencing product (and financial) losses due to undetected – yet preventable – environmental stability issues.
What’s my point?
If you have quality control managers wondering if either a suspected temperature fluctuation or humidity elevation negatively impacted items, your environmental monitoring strategy needs to change right now. You never want someone to say, “I think it got too hot or too humid in here and the product might be compromised. It’s not worth the risk of illness or recall. Just throw it out.” If there’s a confirmed deviation from acceptable ambient conditions, that’s one thing. But tossing what might be perfectly good product because of uncertainty is unacceptable, especially considering there are ways to achieve greater certainty.
Environmental sensing technology has been around for years, and in the past couple of years, it has matured quite significantly. In fact, there are now printable, ready-to-use visual sensors that can be applied to products to reveal environmental excursions via color indicators. There are also electronic sensors that can collect environmental readings and deliver them to the cloud for analysis. In both cases, the data can be actioned in a way that prevents shrink from presumed spoilage, preserves your assets, and helps protect the health and safety of your customers.
Earlier this year, Zebra introduced a new electronic sensor – the ZS300– that enables everyone in your manufacturing, transportation and logistics value chain to wirelessly monitor environmentally sensitive products throughout the entire shipping and storing process using the Android Sensor Discovery app that was developed specifically for this application. Though relatively inexpensive to put into play throughout the supply chain, the ZS300 sensor is going to prove extremely valuable in terms of loss prevention. Here to explain why is Leo Lowy, Director, Environmental Sensors Product Management:
Ashley: I’ve heard so many customers say they’ve discarded product because they just weren’t sure if something happened in transit or in storage and they would rather be safe than sorry, especially in the food and pharmaceutical industries where the stakes are high. No one wants to deal with a recall because they put compromised product into the market. So, let’s talk about the role environmental sensors can play in validating the quality of products hitting shelves and doorsteps.
Leo: One of the key challenges with food and pharma products is in knowing their condition and viability – not only at their point of their arrival, but also during transit and/or storage. Only knowing that a product was viable at its point of manufacture and is still viable at its point of consumption leaves us in the dark during a large part of the supply chain journey these products go on every day.
During its journey from the first mile to the last, there is a wide array of variables that can impact a product’s end quality, such as variations in refrigeration vehicle performance, product hand-offs, packaging quality and the time a product might dwell in less-than-optimal conditions. What’s needed now, more than ever, is trusted confidence in supply chains by consumers and those who are held accountable when quality issues arise. This is where environmental sensors fill an important gap.
By traveling with the product, continuously monitoring conditions, these sensors can show us a product’s condition over time. And, with some sensors, we can see condition, time and location throughout the entire journey. This allows retailers, healthcare providers, shippers, consumers and even manufacturers to establish, down to the item level, if a product has been exposed to potentially damaging conditions. If the products are equipped with connected environmental sensors, this information – and the confidence it instills – can come even before the product arrives.
Ashley: How would you describe environmental sensing as compared to the type of environmental monitoring that occurs in food and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities?
Leo: Environmental monitoring systems use sensors in HVAC, plumbing and other material handling systems to track that air, humidity, light, chemical and other conditions are adhering to policy in a facility. They operate at a macro scale – monitoring conditions across a space, allowing quality managers to have visibility to what is happening in their facility. They are an important system for monitoring processes, ensuring compliance and yield.
Environmental sensing systems, on the other hand, have a more flexible role. They can monitor temperature, humidity, light and other conditions in a space, but also down to the item level and even after an item has left a facility. This means sensing systems don’t have to be tied to just one facility – they can travel with the item(s), monitoring conditions, location and time as they are moved, and share that information during transit and upon arrival. Environmental sensing systems help companies reduce waste, improve costs and gain visibility to the chain of custody by enabling in-transit condition visibility.
Ashley: I worked in resorts for about 10 years and have a strong appreciation for how much effort goes into facility monitoring. I also know how sensors can help increase product yield both within and beyond hospitals, hospitality and manufacturing facilities that hold highly regulated goods, such as food and pharma products.
If freezer and refrigerator doors are leaky and causing warm spots, someone needs to know right away. Of course, with loading and receiving dock doors exposed to the elements, the longer a pallet stays close to or on the dock, the longer it's exposed to the elements. That can increase the risk of products being compromised if there aren’t individual product sensors monitoring and alerting someone to environmental impacts. There is also a wide variety of last-mile shipping options that have no protection at all. For example, a standard box truck can be 30 degrees higher than the ambient temperature, exposing products to 100-degree temperatures even on a nice day at 70 degrees. So, I know in-transit environmental sensing is so important if you want to be confident your products have been monitored from the point of manufacture to the point of use down to the package level.
Leo: Something else driving demand for sensors right now is reputation. Consumers have become very aware of the delicacy of global supply chains in the last few years given the numerous shortages. Though they are worried about product quality, they are just as worried about availability.
Ashley: So, do you see environmental sensors helping to improve cold chain inventory availability in the next few years?
Leo: The vast majority of the products that are thrown away today are due to suspicion, and that suspicion takes up the most amount of labor and time to process taking precious resources away from other fulfillment and inventory tasks.
If you can confirm a pallet, case or product has been in the right environment, you can remove the subjectivity at the same time as accounting for the inventory. This will automate many of the quality steps for receiving inventory and lower the suspicion and cost to process. For example, if a pallet is equipped with an electronic sensor that is read at the dock door, an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) can be dispatched immediately to take the pallet to the correct temperature zone for storage. This prevents the pallet from staying on the truck or dock door and possibly going out of temperature or humidity range. It also increases the likelihood of the inventory being able to be located and moved on to the next leg of its supply chain journey.
Ashley: Let’s go back to the other point you made. Besides worrying about out-of-stocks, we know many consumers have also become wary of the quality controls put in place for consumables. They feel companies are putting them at risk because they’re trying to move products so fast that they’re being careless and losing sight of what’s happening to products in transit. Do you think the use of environmental sensors could help restore public trust in the handling of sensitive items, such as food, medications, and even beauty products that penetrate the skin barrier to enter the body?
Leo: This is all about making the data available to customers in a form they can easily access, understand, and use to make decisions, so I absolutely believe this can help restore public trust.
The European Union Digital Product Passport (DPP) initiative also seems well poised to help close this loop. The DPP is designed to improve visibility to a product’s make up, supply chain journey and recyclability. This includes descriptions of the product’s components and environmental footprint, as well as the environmental conditions products experience during transit and storage.
The EU is working to put the DPP in place for batteries, electronics, and textiles by 2026, with other product types, such as food and pharma products, being covered at a later date. Environmental sensors will be an important part of this initiative, as they can help share data on a product’s condition during storage and transit.
Ashley: Are environmental sensors just as effective as monitoring palleted items as they are monitoring individually packaged items, such as vaccine vials?
Leo: Absolutely. Environmental sensors come in many different forms, from visual sensors that are chemically based to electronic sensors. In some cases, these can even be combined to provide layers of information depending on the sensitivity and value of the items being monitored.
Sensors also come in different variations such as those that will turn color immediately, those that are aimed for longer term and more “bumpy” temperature, or those that need even longer monitoring when temperature over time data is required to make the best quality decision possible before the product is used or consumed.
Optimally, you would have a case level indicator as well as a pallet level indicator to ensure that – if you have a pallet level alarm – you can investigate and validate that the entire pallet is not lost. You can also monitor the inside of a protective package as well as the outside. In last-mile shipping, it is extremely important to drive confidence to the end user that, even if their package feels warm, the inside has stayed at the right temperature.
Ashley: How do Zebra’s new environmental sensors differ from other sensing technology in Zebra’s portfolio – or other environmental sensors on the market?
Leo: Zebra products are embedded in so many processes, enabling a wide range of transactional events. Our solutions scan barcodes, read RFID tags, capture Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, and gather dimensions and quantity characteristics, all to enable faster, informed decision-making. These methods capture the identity of items at high rates. They can also capture location and time. It’s what we call “Sense, Analyze, Act.”
To help refine decisions, our technology’s users also need condition information. It’s very helpful to know where something is at a specific time. Yet, knowing the condition of the product at any point in time also matters. Here is where environmental sensors come into play, adding a layer of information to further refine and automate the Sense, Analyze, Act process.
What we find exciting is that environmental sensors are easily integrated into existing track and trace and inventory management systems. For example, our ZS300 temperature sensors can be discovered by our ZSFinder Android app, turning existing devices into mobile gateways without always requiring the purchase and placement of net new BLE gateways.
Ashley: I imagine supply chain leaders value these sensors as much for their ability to help reduce waste as to increase revenue. Would you agree?
Leo: Absolutely. Supply chain leaders recognize that understanding a product's condition is key to preserving the product’s value. Every time a grocery store employee must mark down produce considered to be imperfect, the store loses money both on the produce and the labor needed to process the markdown. For every item that must be reshipped to the distributor, labor is required to process a new product and get it to a business or home delivery customer. There are expenses involved. So, if you can preserve product quality and protect your brand, it will become easier to increase revenue. Additionally, environmental sensors can make a measurable difference in reducing waste, ensuring process compliance and perhaps most importantly increasing confidence in a brand’s ability to deliver – which is just as important as the actual delivery itself. A Coresight study recently reminded us that “Food waste, expiration and spoilage are sources of shrink that can be measured and reduced.” The Coresight study highlights that food loss and waste happens all along the food supply chain, from farm to fork. Around $600 billion of food is lost globally just after harvest. The brands that that can effectively monitor their supply chains, leading to waste reduction, will likely become the vendors of choice.
Ashley: Environmental sensors aren’t new, but it seems there’s a renewed interest in what’s coming to market now – such as Zebra’s new offerings. What’s driving that? The pressure being placed on cold chains to move more goods? The transparency that customers are demanding? Something else?
Leo: Since the pandemic started, several trends have been like dominos to increase the amount of cold chain space in the supply chain. The first is the general demand by the public for home deliveries of goods. This has increased the risks in the last mile of delivery for all items, regardless of their temperature range, as the retailer is now responsible for the quality of the item to the doorstep instead of it just being accounted for until it leaves the store.
The uptick in the demand and the volatility of the supply chain has also caused more goods to be held for longer. The shelf life of many goods like produce can be increased if kept at lower temperatures. This means more distribution space now needs to be refrigerated space and, thus, more environmental monitoring is required.
The last trend is the post-Covid 3PL shift toward cold chain services to help with products that must be kept at controlled room temperatures, which also require additional packaging and monitoring. These services help a 3PL backfill the revenue that has been lost due to some customers moving back into the store, as well as the uptick in refrigerated goods.
Ashley: Walk us through the process of getting the sensors online. If a customer says, “I want to monitor this space or this product,” what goes into making that happen?
Leo: The sensors themselves are quite easy to get online. While older, legacy temperature sensing products required a USB cable, today’s connected environmental sensors securely broadcast their information to both fixed mount gateways and mobile devices, efficiently and securely transferring data to the cloud. The primary items to consider are sensor placement and data integration when deciding which sensors are best.
There is a series of questions which will help you determine the scope of the effort. The first is: “Which steps of our supply chain would be made meaningfully more efficient or conformant if we knew the condition of the product during those stages?” In other words, which portion of the supply chain is being starved of actionable data? Answering this question requires some flexibility of thought, in that just because a product in not under your direct control for a time period doesn’t mean it can’t be monitored.
Next, layering should be considered. The question is:” Will we sense at the pallet, case or item level?” The answer here may be driven by regulations, as well as economics. Item level monitoring may be required in some cases, while case or pallet monitoring may be the appropriate manner in other situations.
Then, it’s key to consider how environmental data will be consumed and acted upon. The question is “Will the data end up in my systems of record or be isolated in a system outside my enterprise?” While it’s frequently assumed that altering an enterprise system is difficult and costly, that is not always the case. Cloud-based systems can easily gather up data and integrate it into key systems of record. The front end of the sensor data collection process can be external to the enterprise system, while the data itself can arrive just as any typed or scanned data does.
Something else to note: Our customers typically go through three phases when it’s determined that some type of sensing technology is warranted. The first phase is to determine their problem(s). They may be getting bad data, or they may be getting no data at all. First and foremost, they monitor the supply chain and perform data collection to see what needs to be monitored and how. We typically will monitor down to the “each” level at this stage. The next stage is to determine the appropriate level of monitoring required to ensure that the problem has been solved and will not come back. (This is where the previously mentioned questions come in.) This process will then be validated due to most of our customers working in a regulated environment like food or pharma. After the customer can validate the process we propose, they can move to a full roll out of the solution and begin to analyze the data for efficiencies and continued improvement.
Ashley: Talk to me about the Android Sensor Discovery App. Why did you develop this software, and how does it work?
Leo: The Android Sensor Discovery App was developed to ensure that the ZS300 electronic temperature sensors could be read at any time by an Android device and communicate that data to the cloud without having a specific installed BLE bridge or reader device. This is an incredible tool when you think about most trucks, warehouses and logistics areas being full of Android devices. Every time someone walks by a sensing device, the data will move to the cloud, giving you real-time visibility with low infrastructure costs.
If you’d like to learn more about how the new ZS300 environmental sensor could work for you, check this out or contact your local Zebra representative.